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Sermons » 01/06/1997 (9.30am / 11.15am)
To Know Christ
- Philippians 3
A sermon preached by Christopher Hobbs
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Introduction Many things happen that are hard to believe. Apparently in Italy for around £3000 you can buy ready-made coffins that have alarms, two-way speakers, a torch, a small oxygen tank, and a sensor to detect a person's heart-beat, just in case. Why it should be I do not know, but there is a law still on the statue books in Oklahoma, which forbids giving alcohol to fish. In 1664, 1785 and 1860, a passenger ferry sank while crossing the Menai straight off North Wales. Amazingly, each disaster happened on December the 5th and the only survivor on each occasion, was a person called Hugh Williams. Unlikely things do happen. The matters which Paul writes about to the Philippians in this morning's passage, may well strike us as unlikely. What Paul says about knowing Christ seems to go right against the grain of what we would expect someone like him to say. Let's get back to the situation. Rival missionaries had come to Philippi and were causing trouble. They were saying that it was necessary for the new Christians to become like Jews if they were really going to be saved. That meant, as well as believing in Jesus as the Messiah, it was necessary to be circumcised, just like Jewish men, and to keep the kosher laws. They were saying that this Jewish culture was important for everybody to adopt if they were to be God's people. You would think that Paul, a good Jewish boy, would agree with them. But Paul doesn't say anything of the sort. What puts people in the right with God is having pride in Jesus, putting faith in him. That is the only important thing. When people don't know Christ the other things are not worth anything. Take circumcision, so important to Jews: the circumcision that is valuable is of the heart, that is, a heart that is marked out as God's, a heart that is different and that comes from knowing Christ. In the light of what God offers in Christ, all the other things we might think are important are simply worthless. To know Christ is first, MORE IMPORTANT THAN BACKGROUND; secondly, MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEHAVIOUR; thirdly, MORE IMPORTANT THAN LIFE ITSELF. First, MORE IMPORTANT THAN BACKGROUND (vv 1-7) People can easily put their confidence in their background, their privileges and upbringing. Sometimes people put confidence in the country they come from. Think of that child a few days ago who was left in a hotel foyer in Sierra Leone, with a British Passport and £80 inside her shirt, to ensure safe passage out of that unsafe country. Sometimes people put confidence in their education. They were educated at such and such public school, or went to some well-known university, and so everyone should look up to them and respect them. The attitude is alive and well today, even if the reality sometimes seems to be summed up in the bittersweet joke, "What do you say to a new graduate?" "Big Mac and chips". There may also be people who think they will be alright because they had a Christian background. Maybe their father or uncle was a clergyman, maybe they were baptised or went to Sunday School as a child. But all these aspects of background, whatever privileges and upbringing we have had, and whatever advantages they give us in human society, they do not count with God. They do not impress God. What he thinks important is our attitude to his Son, where we are with Jesus Christ. Paul knew that the Philippians had started alright, they had put their faith in Christ. He reminds them that the source of joy and confidence is the Lord Jesus Christ, not any human achievements, not any qualifications or practices, look at verses 1-7:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh -- though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
Paul himself had plenty of things in his background that he could be proud of. He was "circumcised on the eighth day". According to the law, that was the earliest circumcision could take place. From his beginning Paul had been marked out as a Jew. All the important rituals had been done for him. He was "of the people of Israel". Paul was a native-born member of the chosen people of God. He was "of the tribe of Benjamin". Benjamin was the only one of the twelve sons of Jacob born in the Promised Land. It was the tribe of the first King. It was one of the two tribes that had remained faithful. He was "a Hebrew of Hebrews". There were Jews in Paul's day who were not Hebrew in culture, they were the Hellenists or "Grecian Jews" mentioned in the book of Acts. Even though Paul had come from Tarsus in Asia Minor, Paul's culture was orthodox Hebrew Judaism. These were great advantages. Paul had a perfect Jewish background. He was as kosher as a salt-beef begel. The missionaries were trying to get non-Jews to accept aspects of Judaism, but what does Paul say about all these things, "whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ". That is the first point, knowing Christ is more important than our background. Some people here this morning may be rejoicing in their good upbringing, their GCSEs, O levels, their university degree. There may be a certain level of cultural smugness. Others may be proud that they were baptised by full immersion, or as a child by a famous preacher, but these are not things to take pride in. In God's scale of values they are not what is important. That is like getting excited about who has sat in the same seat as us on a train or aeroplane. It is Christ who matters, not what has happened to us. If Christ is more important than background, we see that he is Secondly, MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEHAVIOUR (vv 8-9) The troublesome missionaries were saying that the Philippians had to keep the Jewish law. They were saying that the Philippians would not be acceptable to God unless they did the things that the law required. There are some meddlesome parents who are not happy until their children are married, and then not happy until their children have children, and on and on, adding more and more requirements to be acceptable. Paul says God is not like that. He is not a God who is adding up our merit to decide whether to be favourable to us or not. God's favour is based on something else. Back in verse 5 Paul said, that formerly he was "in regard to the law, a Pharisee". The Pharisees were the most devout at keeping the law. They spelled out the law so that everyone would know exactly what they ought to do. They determined that God's Law contained 613 commands, 248 positive and 365 negative. They thought about all sorts of permutations to make sure that God's law was kept to the uttermost. Paul had been such a good Jew. He was "as for zeal, persecuting the church". Before he knew Christ, Paul was very active in stopping what he thought was the Christian heresy. Paul's overwhelming passion for God meant that he tried to stamp out God's enemies. Then Paul was "as for legalistic righteousness, faultless". Nobody could raise a finger at Paul and say there were aspects of the Jewish law that he was not keeping. By Jewish standards Paul was first-rate. He was fully entitled to confidence in his position and attainments. But what does Paul say, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ". Paul is like a business man who has written off certain assets. Or like a car that has been in an accident and is a "write-off", there is no value remaining. It is very hard for us to write off our behaviour. We don't like writing off the good things that we have done. Many people if they were asked why they should be let into heaven if there is one, say things like "I've never done anyone any harm" "I've always tried to do to my neighbour as I would be done by". We might have imagined Paul saying at the pearly gates, "God I thank you for your law, which I have always loved and always kept in so far as I was able". But what does he say? Verses 8 and 9:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.
In comparison with Christ, whatever good things that Paul had done, in Paul's eyes added up to nothing more than rubbish. What God had given him in knowing Christ was far more important than what Paul had done. The lesson that Paul learned is a hard one to learn. Somehow we feel that God must be impressed with our good behaviour. But just as Paul's attitude is not what we would expect, God's way is not at all what we would expect. Surely what we achieve is of the greatest importance to God? No - for in God's way, human achievement is not the way of salvation. Being a good sort of a person can even lead us into a false sense of security. We might think that we can have confidence before God because of the fact that we are rarely bad-tempered. We are kind to people, wise and humble. We might have confidence before God because we give regularly and generously, or because we pray and read the Bible. We may think of such things as making God pleased with us. But Paul says that our righteousness is not the important one: it is the righteousness which is through faith in Jesus Christ that is important. (1) This righteousness comes as a gift from God. It is secured for us by Christ's death. (2) This righteousness is received by faith. To illustrate, let me describe another true story. It concerns a 6 year old boy and his little sister. The boy has taken a biscuit but has found it stale so he puts it down the toilet. It stays there floating and his father discovers it when he comes home in the evening. "Who did this?" said the father. Both children deny it. "Perhaps it came through the pipes from the neighbour's house", said the little boy. "We don't have lying in this house", says the father, "You can go to your room until one of you owns up". The boy says to his sister, "One of us has to own up - why don't you go?". The sister goes to her father and is punished. The boy is free because the sister has been punished. When Jesus died, he was taking the punishment for us. Jesus was not taking the punishment gullibly or by mistake. Jesus meant to die that we might be forgiven. To accept Jesus' righteousness is to let him do what he wants to do. We can't deserve this. We can't earn it. Faith is the way we receive the gift. Faith in Jesus means in this life accepting that he has done this. It has been called a great exchange: Jesus Christ takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. Paul wanted to remind the Philippians there is something more important than our background, and something even more important than our behaviour. God looks at us as if Christ's behaviour was ours, when we know Christ. For Paul this experience of Christ is Thirdly, MORE IMPORTANT THAN LIFE ITSELF (vv 10-11) Death looms as a fairly large barrier to most people. It has been called the ultimate statistic. One out of one people die. But we can get barriers wrong. For many years the cape at the bottom of Africa was considered impassable. So many storms raged around there that ships were always wrecked. It was named the Cape of Storms. Eventually Vasco da Gama found a way through the Cape, and got round to the Indies beyond. He renamed it the Cape of Good Hope. That was a barrier that loomed large, that eventually turned out not to be a barrier. Paul had met the risen Christ: he knew that he had risen from the dead. Paul knew that death is not an end but a beginning. For Paul, life and death took on new meaning. Look at what he wrote in verses 10 and 11:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
To know Christ is to see life and death in a different perspective. Think of that great power that raised Christ, three days dead. Scientifically it can't be contemplated. Yet it happened. There are many people who seem to be alive who in God's eyes are dead. If you are here this morning and you think you might be one I'm talking about, how important to find out. We're having a special service tonight at 6.30, come along and find out whether you're dead or alive! Or join a Just Looking group. Christ gives power over death, those who are spiritually dead can be brought spiritually to life. What a privilege to be involved in this power, but I think Paul is actually talking about his own physical resurrection. That is what he longs for. If, in following Christ, physical sufferings or death come about, that doesn't ultimately matter, because there is resurrection from the dead. Paul wants to receive whatever God has for him, even if it is a death like Christ's. He is not afraid of joining with Christ in suffering, because he knows, though he cannot explain it, that resurrection is in store. To know Christ, is to let life and death take on a new meaning. What we think of as life itself, will turn out to be much over-rated. Just as surely, no matter how much we value our relationship with Christ, we will one day find that we have under-rated him. We have not treated other things as rubbish in comparison to him, and we are much the poorer. Conclusion If we have been challenged not to put our confidence in our background, and not to put confidence in our behaviour, there is thirdly an awkward challenge here, to put our faith in Christ above our own comfort in this life.
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